No matter what you read or hear elsewhere, it’s a fact that Real Madrid did not lose this Clasico, in which they were utterly thrashed, “because Karim Benzema was out.” Don’t accept that: It’s glib, it hides some key truths and it is a little typical of the modern obsession with one-phrase analysis.
As well-planned, well-coached and as scintillatingly effective as Xavi’s Barcelona were in winning 4-0, a scoreline that could have been 8-0, Spain‘s champions-elect were truly awful individually and collectively. It starts with the coaching team themselves.
Carlo Ancelotti isn’t just an old-school gentleman and a blessing in Spanish football: He’s a talented, high-achieving and extremely clever man-manager who, barring something utterly horrendous happening, will collect 17 points or more in his next nine La Liga matches in charge of Madrid and become the first man to win the title in each of Europe’s big five leagues.
Seventeen points is the total, I’m arguing, because in order to even force Madrid to need that many in order to lift the Spanish title, Barcelona would need to take 28 out of their next 30 available points — a ridiculously big ask. If Xavi’s reborn Blaugrana army won nine and drew one of their last 10 fixtures, it would be an immense achievement — and would take them to 82 points. Los Blancos already have 66 points in the bag; to reach 83 (and avoid going on the head-to-head scores between the clubs this season), they’d need just 17 points from their remaining nine matches.
Now, if either Thibaut Courtois or Benzema were suddenly absent for a long spell — something anyone with a love of football must pray does not happen — then the vista would change. Other than that, it’s brutally hard to imagine Ancelotti not bringing Madrid the title that (right now) they thoroughly deserve. However, only if you haven’t been paying attention to Florentino Perez over the past 22 years, can you easily imagine Ancelotti’s continuity at hanging by the slenderest of threads.
The last time a Madrid side lost a home Clasico 4-0, the manager (Rafa Benitez) was given six more LaLiga matches and then, after a draw at Valencia, was sacked. The last time a Madrid side played with this lethargy, lack of attention to detail or lack of competitive spirit was in Paris a month ago.
I thought then, and still think now, that Ancelotti received the equivalent of a yellow card from his employer than night. Defeat, even for Madrid, is an inevitable occasional occurrence. Defeat without character, where the display is impoverished, which embarrasses the President — that’s a wholly different matter.
Let me state here and now that this analysis is judging how Florentino Perez thinks and acts. By any normal (read: “old-school”) standards, the final year of Ancelotti’s contract should be quite safe if he follows a trophy-less season (under Zinedine Zidane) with a league and Super Cup double, which looks extremely likely. (It bears noting Fabio Capello was sacked in 2009 after winning the league, while Jupp Heynckes met a similar fate in 1998 after winning the Champions League.)
The past few coaches at Santiago Bernabeu have been hamstrung by a few elements. For example, President Perez’s desire to stash financial reserves away and not spend excessively in order to sign Kylian Mbappe — and quite understandably, too. There’s also the vast investment in renewing the Santiago Bernabeu until it becomes the world’s greatest football stadium. And by the “force majeure” of a pandemic and its economic impact on spectator sport. All of which is to say that Madrid’s squad hasn’t been rejuvenated, renewed and upgraded in certain areas to the necessary degree.
So, were Ancelotti to finish this season with two trophies and, say, a Champions League semifinal, he should be awarded a laurel wreath for his head and called a hero. But it’ll surprise me if this Clasico humiliation, the home defeat to FC Sheriff and the away loss in Paris don’t begin a process of Florentino Perez and his praetorian guard looking around to find a replacement for the Italian … just in case.
Sunday night’s evidence does him no favours whatsoever.
Barcelona didn’t simply arrive in good form, with pace and youthful vigour; they came to town with a crystal-clear game plan, with the confidence that Benzema missing was a big boost. They came to go toe-to-toe.
Ancelotti’s ideas about how to cope with Benzema’s absence had their roots in the Barcelona of his memories — the one his team defeated so easily at Camp Nou in the Autumn and the one that, via rope-a-dope counter-attacks, they beat in the Supercopa semifinal in January. His ideas were based on a Barcelona that could be hustled, bullied and robbed of possession, where Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was an Achilles’ heel and where the Catalan club were glass-chinned and uncertain of themselves.
A reasonable tactical idea, though wrongly applied; Barcelona haven’t been playing like that for some weeks now.
Where was the scouting? Who had the counter-voices in Ancelotti’s team saying “right bet at the wrong time, boss!?” If he thought that the exertions of Barcelona winning in Istanbul, flying back tired, but jubilant, and the lack of meaningful training time between beating Galatasaray and facing a Clasico might add force to his tactical plan, then fair enough. But he got it wrong.
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For those of you who are only reading about the Clasico and didn’t watch this magical match, here’s what Ancelotti tried to do.
Ancelotti wanted Vinicius, Rodrygo and Federico Valverde to buzz around Ter Stegen, Ronald Araujo, Gerard Pique, Eric Garcia and Jordi Alba with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos high up the pitch as the second line of press waiting to pick up the merest scraps of possession won by Barcelona’s fallibility. Ancelotti then wanted the latter pair — two brilliant, ruthless men — to use Barcelona’s cheaply lost possession to smash them with a series of quick passes in the last third of the pitch while Xavi’s team were caught unawares.
Not only didn’t that work, but Madrid’s press was largely made to look like what it is, a recent concept and a weekend-DIY project rather than expert and industrially strong. Kroos and Modric were bypassed time and again, which left Barcelona with vastly superior numbers in midfield and free to mount precise, damaging attacking pass after pass.
When Ancelotti changed things midway through the half, it helped a little: Modric was back in deep midfield to offer more control, Casemiro supported him, and they tried to play on the counter rather than use their badly executed, ill-designed press. But there was an immediate catastrophe, and one neither Ancelotti nor the absent Benzema have anything to do with.
Before Araujo effectively kills the game with his header for 2-0, you just need to look at the schoolboy state (sorry to schoolboys everywhere) of Madrid’s preparation for the killer corner. Vinicius and Madrid were futilely arguing with the referee on the edge of their own box, nobody paying attention to Araujo. Neither Eder Militao nor David Alaba mark the Uruguayan so, remarkably, the best header of the ball in the Barcelona squad, the No. 1 danger from the visitors at any attacking set play is left free, and I mean completely free, to head past Thibaut Courtois.
It was probably the easiest goal this ex-striker who dreams of, one day, returning to play up front, will ever score. If you watch closely, you’ll see Modric complain that Araujo bumps the Croat’s outstretched hand as he runs past him — a hand outstretched because he’s still berating referee Martinez Munuera while the corner is being taken.
Modric is Ancelotti’s head lieutenant, the embodiment of talent meeting gritty winner-mentality. But here, he’s behaving as if it’s a Sunday afternoon kick-about on the beach. What, I’d argue, has that aberration of behaviour from Madrid’s most competitive player to do with Benzema’s absence? And how is that Ancelotti’s fault?
This type of thing was happening all over the pitch. Militao had, by far, his worst performance of the last two seasons, a night riddled with errors. As for Dani Carvajal? Well, there Ancelotti bears some blame. The Spain international hasn’t played well for weeks — error-prone, guilty of gifting away possession, gifting away penalties. He shouldn’t have started the match — form demanded that. Ancelotti got the decision wrong.
He got more wrong at half-time, too. The idea of going to three at the back, allowing an already utterly rampant Barcelona attack to go one-on-one against an improvised line of Nacho, Militao and Alaba was rampant folly. It was the “all-in” gesture of someone who’s lost heavily and thinks one final, huge gamble might turn the night his way. Spectacular when they come off — horrible otherwise.
Eduardo Camavinga, on at half-time, copied his elders and betters by, within a couple of minutes, gifting the ball away cheaply then being robbed, easily, by Frenkie De Jong to create the third goal. Casemiro wanders back, wholly uncompetitive, un-athletic, for the fourth goal, but makes a healthy job of arguing with the referee over whether Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s second goal should or shouldn’t stand. Priorities, Casemiro, priorities.
Ancelotti had a horrible night. One for which, I fear, he’ll pay heavily. Benzema, with Courtois and Modric, is this team’s leader, and he’s playing like a footballing god right now. But his absence neither needed Madrid’s Italian manager to invent a 4-1-4-1 formation that the team weren’t in a position to impose, nor to suddenly risk a 3-5-2 formation when the slightest error at the back would be fatal. Nor should Benzema’s absence have caused the vast majority of Madrid’s players to turn in low-grade, lazy, haphazard, listless performances in a Clasico.
Barcelona were utterly devastating. Clear about their tasks, personally and tactically, riding on a vapour cloud of confidence having recently put four goals past Atletico, Valencia, Athletic and Napoli, bristling with personality and verve. It was enough for Bayern’s Thomas Muller to tweet “Congrats FC Barcelona. It was a pleasure to watch this amazing performance tonight. Chapeau.” That’s pretty remarkable in itself, but I’ll leave you with a couple of thoughts.
Ferland Mendy barely gets a mention, but his presence — fast, fit, strong, clever, technically skilled — was hugely missed. In fact, it always is. For some reason, Perez isn’t Mendy’s No.1 admirer, but I think that’s a huge misjudgement. Mendy performs at a high level while Vinicius, ahead of him, and Alaba, just inside him, are far better and more impactful when the Frenchman is in the XI.
Secondly: This is a timely warning to Madrid that they need an immediate reset. Chelsea are not soft-bellied like PSG. Man for man, Los Blancos can think themselves better equipped than the European champions, but only if every man is on about 10 times better form than this. How can they achieve that over the international break?
Also, those of us who warned that there would be a very high cost of Ancelotti relentlessly playing Modric-Casemiro-Kroos week after week in the middle part of the season was tempting, but carried a potentially catastrophic price tag, might be about to be proven correct.
Finally, Barcelona: Just watch them. That, as we saw on Sunday night, is how you play football.